Politically-minded historical films have always been understandably popular. However, while the “based on a true story” tagline may draw audiences in, films of this ilk are particularly difficult to pull off: In order to truly craft a satisfying cinematic experience, the elements of history must be properly balanced with the dramatic ingredients necessary to engage the audience. Unfortunately, it is in this respect that Catch a Fire comes up short.
The film stars Derek Luke as Patrick Chamusso, a hardworking, South African family man who becomes embroiled in a government investigation. After an explosion incites a search for the men responsible, Col. Nic Vos (Oscar-winner Tim Robbins) apprehends Chamusso, who he believes caused the attack. Despite Chamusso’s vehement denial that he had anything to do with the crime, Vos continues his interrogation, even torturing Chamusso’s dutiful wife (Bonnie Henna) in the process. This provides Chamusso with the motivation to strike back at his corrupt government.
While one would think that Chamusso’s tale would make for a riveting film, Catch a Fire never truly engages the audience. Whittled down to just over an hour and a half of screen time, the story is not given enough room to develop. Instead, it seems as if major events are rushed past so that the plot can progress. For example, not nearly enough time and attention is given to Chamusso’s decision to retaliate against the system that wronged his family.
Luke, who gave an impressive debut performance in 2002’s Antwone Fisher, portrays Chamusso with passion and conviction, yet the script never gives him the fuel he needs to truly make the film work. Only a handful of scenes with Robbins allow Luke the chance to demonstrate the intensity he is capable of. Although his performance in Catch a Fire is already being touted as an Oscar contender, Luke’s best work undoubtedly lies ahead of him. He is certainly a promising talent, but this film is merely a stepping stone to his future successes.
Likewise, Robbins gives yet another strong performance. However, his character is never given much of a storyline of his own. Nearly all of his scenes relate directly to Chamusso’s plight, and though Chamusso’s story is rightfully at the forefront of the film’s focus, Catch a Fire would have benefited from a more thorough depiction of Vos. Although he encompasses much of the film’s running time, the character remains very much a mystery by the time the credits roll. Catch a Fire fails to transform Vos into a multi-layered individual, and as such, the audience never completely understands him, detracting from the film’s potential power.
Before long, the film reaches its abrupt climax, skipping ahead in time and glossing over details that would have added much-needed richness to the preceding events. Rather than firmly establishing his story’s theme, director Phillip Noyce instead opts for a tagged-on, documentary-style conclusion which completely deflates the film’s resonance. Although he intends for Catch a Fire to provide a powerful depiction of a compelling true story, the resulting feature is too rushed and lacking the dramatic intensity required to bring Chamusso’s story to life. Still, the production value and performances somewhat redeem these flaws, making Catch a Fire a decent, if unremarkable, film.